Libanius on Memorization in Graeco-Roman Education

Libanius on Memorization in Graeco-Roman Education July 17, 2013

I’ve been reading Libanius’ autobiography recently and stumbled across an interesting remark he makes about his education. Note: Libanius was a pagan teacher of rhetoric living in the newly Christianized Roman Empire. In his autobiography, he says this:

I restrained my mind from composing, my tongue from speaking, and my hand from writing, and I concentrated upon one thing only – the memorization of the works of classical authors – and studied under a man of prodigious memory who was capable of instilling into his pupils an appreciation of the excellence of the classics. I attached myself to him so wholeheartedly that I would not leave even after class had been dismissed, but would trail after him, book in hand, even through the city square, and he had to give me some instruction, whether he liked it or not. At the time he was obviously annoyed at this importunity, but in later days he was full of praise for it. Libanius, Autobiography, 8 (LCL, p. 61).

When I read this quote, I think it underscores something that Birger Gerhardsson said many years ago, namely, Rabbi Akiba did not invent memorization as a pedagogical tool! Memory was simply part and parcel of ancient education.

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  • Susan_G1

    There is a debate going on in education now, pitting ‘rote memorization’ against ‘critical thinking skills/information processing’. It’s discouraging to read about, as expert opinions abound.

    When I started homeschooling, I realized how little I remembered from my schooling. I was determined to make it different for my children. They did flashcards for math, and for the first time in my life, I actually memorized without having to mentally go down the multiplication tables. They memorized poems, grammar rules, a lot of world geography, Scripture, plays, and other things. I tried to make it as fun as possible, but it was not an option to learn, test, and forget.

    Their experience was unique, as we didn’t use any set curricula. I don’t know to this day if I made the right choices, but they still remember vast amounts of information, much more than I did (but relearned). They are very culturally literate. I wanted them to be able to go into any field they wanted. They ended up in the sciences.

    What do we want for our future leaders? I can understand why we aren’t the happiest contry in the world, but not why we are not among the best educated.

  • scotmcknight

    Melete to pan! (Practice, or repetition, is everything.) An ancient saying, perhaps from Alcibiades. I learned — rote — in my 1st Greek class. Crosby and Schaeffer.

  • Garet Robinson

    What a great citation!

    Memorization was part and parcel to my public school education in primary and secondary schooling. We were required to memorize segments of poems, speeches, literature, and other works regularly. I can still stand and give extended quotes of these great works and they come to mind occasionally.

    Memorizing embeds a richness that feeds us for years.

  • Jeremy Wales

    You might already be aware, but David Carr, Writing on the Tablet of the Heart: Origins of Scripture and Literature (OUP: 2005), amasses evidence which suggests that memorisation was at the heart of all ANE and Mediteranean education so that even the Hebrew scriptures would have been produced and copied primarily as aids to such inculturation through memorisation. His later aritcle summarising this argument can be found here: